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Evolution and our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 10

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April 26, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Evolution and our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 10

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.


In my last post I gave an example from W. H. Green that illustrated the seriousness with which Old Princeton took new insights concerning historical context in interpreting Scripture. Specifically, we saw a commitment to going where the historical evidence led, even if it became uncomfortable.

As I said at the conclusion of that post, such an open posture toward reading the Bible in context is very relevant for the question that occupies us here at BioLogos: How should we understand Scripture, namely the creation accounts, in view of our growing understanding of history from a scientific point of view, and from an archaeological point of view?

In other words, how does our understanding of origins (the scientific question) and of ancient origins texts (the archaeological question) combine to affect what we expect from Genesis historically?

I do not mean to imply that Old Princeton would be walking arm in arm with BioLogos or any other “theistic evolution” position as articulated today. That would be too much to expect. What I mean to say is that we see in Old Princeton a very important philosophical commitment being articulated—reading the Bible in light of it historical contexts.

The issue we face today is that our knowledge of historical context is far broader and deeper than in the nineteenth century, and so raises a different set of concerns. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), as is well known, accepted evolution as giving the proper scientific account of human origins. He believed that hearing God’s voice in scripture and the findings of solid scientific work were not at odds. As historians Mark Noll and David Livingston put it, “B. B. Warfield, the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.”1

Warfield, however, did not address the matter in as much theological and hermeneutical depth as is needed today, given our growing scientific and archaeological knowledge. In fact, Warfield did not address the latter (to my knowledge) at all. Thus, we should not call upon Warfield, or any other of his contemporaries, to settle the evolution question for us today. The question is whether we see in Warfield (and others) a hermeneutical trajectory for having the needed “Bible in context” discussion today.

In my opinion, there are valuable lessons to be learned here for contemporary Evangelicals.

B. B. Warfield and the “Human Side” of the Bible

The theological reason why Warfield and the other Old Princeton theologians were so open to looking at the Bible in its historical context was because they understood the Bible to be analogous to Christ himself. As Christ was both divine and human, Scripture also has divine and human sides.

Of course, this is only an analogy. No one—least of all Warfield—is claiming that the Bible is “God incarnate” like Christ is. But he is saying that Christ the Word and Scripture the word are both evidence of “God with us” and both have a divine and human “dimension” (if you will forgive the imprecise language here).

The divine and human cannot be separated, either in Christ or in the Bible. Both are what they are. In fact, with Christ, his humanity is essential to who he is. Likewise, the Bible’s “human side” is an essential part of what Scripture is, and recognizing this has practical implications.

In an 1894 essay Warfield put it this way, saying it is fundamental,

that the whole of Scripture is the product of the divine activities which enter it, not by superseding the activities of the human authors, but by working confluently with them, so that the Scriptures are the joint product of divine and human activities, both of which penetrate them at every point, working harmoniously together to the production of a writing which is not divine here and human there, but at once divine and human in every part, every word and every particular.2

Warfield calls this relationship between the divine and human in the Bible “concursus.” He goes on to say:

On this conception, therefore, for the first time full justice is done to both elements of Scripture [human and divine]. Neither is denied because the other is recognized. And neither is limited to certain portions of Scripture so that place may be made for the other. As full justice is done to the human element as is done by those who deny that there is any divine element in the Bible, for of every word in the Bible, it is asserted that it has been conceived in a human mind and written by a human hand. As full justice is done to the divine element as is done by those who deny that there is any human element in the Bible, for of every word in the Bible it is asserted that it is inspired by God, and has been written under the direct and immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit.3

These words were written for a fairly popular readership, not for scholars. Here Warfield had a wonderful opportunity to perhaps mend a fence to protect the sheep against things that were new and might not be understood. But rather he affirmed, positively, and in no uncertain terms, the integral role of the “human element” (as he puts it) of Scripture.

As I said above, Warfield may not have applied this idea as much as we today might have hoped, but he was also keenly aware that concursus has clear practical implications for how we read our Bibles, especially in view of developments in biblical scholarship at his time.

More than an Abstract Idea

In his article cited above, Warfield is clear about the questions he was attempting to answer: “How are the two factors, the divine and the human, to be conceived as related to each other in the act of inspiration? And, how is the Scriptural relationship between the two consequent elements in the product, the divine and human, to be conceived?”

These “how” questions were prompted, according to Warfield, by the reality that,

[r]ecent discussion of the authenticity, authorship, integrity, structure of the several Biblical books, has called men's attention, as possibly it has never before been called, to the human element in the Bible. Even those who were accustomed to look upon their Bible as simply divine, never once thinking of the human agents through whom the divine Spirit spoke, have had their eyes opened to the fact that the Scriptures are human writings, written by men, and bearing the traces of their human origin on their very face. In many minds the [“how”] questions have become quite pressing...

Warfield goes on to say that it is not enough to be content with the “effects of inspiration.” We must also strive to understand how inspiration works (a divine/human concursus). This is not an issue that could be left to the side in Warfield’s day, and certainly not in ours.

One cannot simply appeal to the fact of inspiration to settle disputes about the Bible. One must engage the “nature and mode” of inspiration (as Warfield put it), the fact that Scripture is a divine/human entity. To put this in plain English, according to Warfield, inspiration means the divine and human are working together to produce a product that is of divine authority and bears the indelible marks of its historical context. A proper understanding of inspiration does not marginalize the “human side” but respects it.

Putting it this way does not settle the big interpretive questions, and, as I said, Warfield did not apply this principle as much as we need to today. The principle, however, is not only sound but powerful. What remains for us is honest conversation about how this principle applies to our present challenges concerning evolution.

In my next two posts we will look briefly at another wing of Calvinism roughly contemporary with Old Princeton, the Dutch Reformed tradition, and look at a very telling example of “Bible in context” from the New Testament.


1. On Warfield and evolution, see Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingston, eds., B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science, and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 14.

2. B. B. Warfield, “The Divine and Human in the Bible,” in Evolution, Scripture, and Science: Selected Writings (ed. M. A. Noll and D. N. Livingstone; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) 57. The essay was originally published in the Presbyterian Journal, May 3, 1894.

3. B. B. Warfield, “The Divine and Human in the Bible,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield (ed. John E . Meeter; Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 57.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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penman - #58971

April 26th 2011

Here’s a Warfield quote that bears on this area of discussion:

“A presumption may be held to lie also that he [the apostle Paul] shared
the ordinary opinions of his day in certain matters lying outside the scope of
his teachings, as, for example, with reference to the form of the earth, or its
relation to the sun; and it is not inconceivable that the form of his language,
when incidentally adverting to such matters, might occasionally play into the
hands of such a presumption.” (in Warfield’s essay “The Real Problem of Inspiration”).

I don’t know if Warfield followed this up, but it seems to allow for the idea that the veracity of apostolic writings needs to be coordinated with their purpose, which is not to teach cosmology.

PeteEnns - #59087

April 26th 2011


Yes, this is correct, although things can get a bit hairy when you push Warfield (in your mind’s eye) a bit on specifics. Just how to determine an author’s “purpose” and what he aims to “teach” are not clear safeguards as Warfield seems to suggest. Not to derail the discussion, but Adam is for Paul both a “teaching” and a cultural assumption of human origins (like a stationary earth, de novo creation of all life, not just humans, etc.) Also, another example, In 1 Cor 10:4 when Paul refers to a mobile source of water for the Israelites in the desert, is Paul “teaching” such a thing or is he sharing in another subtle assumption with other Jewish interpreters that envisioned a mobile source of water. Examples could be multiplied many times over, but the idea that Paul is only tainted by his culture when he is in non-teaching mode and free of that influence when he is teaching seems arbitrary to me.  But, as I see it, my complaint here is in the application of Warfield’s principle, which I find to be very helpful for us today.
penman - #59390

April 27th 2011

This user is in good standing.

                                PeteEnns - #59087

I’d have to go beyond Warfield to reply on the application of his views, since my acquaintance with his writings is very limited - I stumbled across the previous quote during some idle reading one Sunday afternoon. If anyone can press the specifically Warfieldian view any further, it’d be of great interest.

Speaking for Penman, not Warfield… I’m happy with the idea that Paul (say) was “tainted” by his culture - influenced by it, conditioned, colored, etc - in *everything* he wrote. But I’d still distinguish between the apostolic/scriptural teaching & what is incidental to it. Not everything in scripture is intended to be “imposed” (for want of a better word) on us as teaching/doctrine. Otherwise, if we take a flat, simplistic, everything-it-says-binds-us-as -truth approach, we lose the ability to discriminate between (say) the actual intended teaching of the book of Job, & the mass of inadequate or downright false theology that gushes from Job’s comforters in so much of the book.

And yes, things immediately then get “hairy” for everyone, not just for Warfield (or for bald theologians), since we’re plunged into the whole intricate world of hermeneutics. No way of avoiding that! Hence the debates here about what to make of Paul’s use of Adam etc.

Naivety about hermeneutics is one of the most deeply troubling aspects of much “conservative” church life today. On the other hand, developing a sensitive hermeneutics doesn’t preordain us to some blanket relativizing or allegorizing of scriptural teaching (eg the resurrection was only a symbol, not a historical actuality). Charting a path between the two is what seems desirable to me. The great theologians have always tried to do this, so it’s no modern novelty.

Thanks for your own contributions!

nedbrek - #59975

April 28th 2011

The question I have is, “Do we let scholars overturn the plain reading of Scripture?”.

That is, does our understanding of the people and times highlight, enhance, and expound on the “plain meaning” (what any average person would come to understand upon reading the Bible) - or does it throw it out?

Cal - #60049

April 28th 2011


What does plain-reading mean? When Jesus says “I’ve not come to bring peace, but a sword” what is that suppose to mean? In today’s common thinking, the sword is a symbol of war. In the ANE/Hellenism the sword was a symbol of division, and the bow was the symbol of war. If you didn’t know that and saw this passage, you might think Jesus was advocating war in His name.

I think the Gospel message is simple enough to understand (Jesus came to rescue men and died for the sins of the world and resurrected to ascend to be with the Father and lead us) but it also contains hundreds of layers of depth. The letter is worthless but the message that the Spirit teaches is everything.

Gina - #60300

April 28th 2011


I am also curious about the meaning you ascribe to “the plain reading of Scripture”.  I’ve experienced Christian communities who attach fundamentally different meanings to the same passage of scripture plainly read from two different English translations.  In each case,  I wonder if believers have erred by confusing the inspiration of scripture with scriptural interpretation imposed upon their favorite translations.  If we seek to understand the concursus inherent in the former, we may improve our pursuits in the latter.  I definitely think that understanding the Bible in context will aid our understanding of scripture.   Some of our plain reading and attendant interpretation may need to be thrown out. 

nedbrek - #60621

April 29th 2011

Cal, Gina - my argument isn’t that everyone will agree, or that anyone can sit down and write an 800 page Systematic Theology after one read through of the Bible.

Tradition is a great help in cases like this.  While not infallible, you should have to make a really good argument to counter tradition.

In this case, we are talking about overturning original sin, even the definition of sin.  There have been challenges (by Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, and others) of God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge.

There should be a strong Biblical case for these arguments.  Instead, we have arguments undermining of Biblical authority and casting doubt on its clarity.

Gina - #60639

April 30th 2011

My degrees are not in biblical studies, and I recognize that I may be out of my element here, but its difficult for me to wrap my mind around the concept of “Biblical authority”.  For example, is the authority attributed to original biblical texts recorded in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek identical to that attributed to English translations of the same (i.e., NASB and NIV)?  My concern is that, as a lay person, I try to understand the inspired messages of the Bible.  To that end, I accept the need to consider the Bible in context, as well as the willingness to humbly question my previous assumptions. I find that I hold tightly to the redeeming work of Christ, even as I  let go of my attachment to the doctrine of original sin.    

nedbrek - #60666

May 1st 2011

Gina, thank you for your openness;
of course the greatest authority lies in the oldest and best manuscripts in the original languages.

But, translation is possible and God honoring (and, translation can be sinful and God dishonoring).

If you look into the history, you will find there is very good agreement, both among the “good” translations, and as we find more and better manuscripts (for example, the KJV was constructed from just a handful of manuscripts, the latest NASB or NKJV have many more, yet are virtually indistinguishable from the KJV).

I am curious how you account for sin at all apart from original sin?

Gina - #60675

May 1st 2011

I grew up in a tradition which read Genesis literally, whose theology insisted that sin entered the perfectly sinless world when Adam and Eve took a bite of forbidden fruit.   The need for salvation through Christ was traced back in human history to that exact moment.  Rejecting a literal reading of Genesis meant rejecting original sin, and that meant rejecting the need for salvation through Christ.  Throw down the first domino, and subsequent dominoes tumble.  Something in this party line bothered me, but I immersed myself in mathematics and avoided internal conflict..   

In middle age, I have chosen to reject the domino theology of my past.  First, I accepted the expansive scientific evidence for biological evolution (after finally reading accurate summaries of it).  Domino 1 falls.  Second, I read Giberson and Collins (2011) and realized that my theology could be simplified: I could reject the requirement that my theology account for how sin entered a sinless world.  Domino 2 (original sin) falls.  Now I understand that “salvation through Christ requires only that we agree that humans are sinful and in need of salvation” (p. 214).  Two dominoes fall, yet salvation through Christ stands tall.   

I refer you to Giberson and Collins (2011) for a discussion of how non-literal interpretations of Genesis may be reconciled with science.  I’m still mulling over them.    


Giberson. K.W., & Collins, F.S. (2011).   The language of science and faith.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.  
penman - #60692

May 2nd 2011

“I grew up in a tradition which read Genesis literally, whose theology
insisted that sin entered the perfectly sinless world when Adam and Eve
took a bite of forbidden fruit.   The need for salvation through Christ
was traced back in human history to that exact moment.  Rejecting a
literal reading of Genesis meant rejecting original sin, and that meant
rejecting the need for salvation through Christ.  Throw down the first
domino, and subsequent dominoes tumble.”

If I may add a comment or two… I travelled a path out of an initial young earth creationism, through agnosticism (on the pertinent issues), through old earth creationism, to evolutionary creationism. But I’ve never seen the need to reject the historicity of Adam as humanity’s federal head, nor original sin as flowing from humanity’s collective rebellion in Adam. In other words, there are theological models available that enable us to combine modern geological & biological beliefs with the basic orthodoxy Nedbrek is (rightly) asking for.

Denis Alexander has set out a good Adam model somewhere on this site, & in his book “Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?” Also R.J.Berry has a great essay on an Adam-evolution model in this quarter’s “Science and Christian Belief”.

Two moves I think have to be made:

1 - Adam was the federal head of an existing race, not the sole genetic father of a subsequent race.

2 - Prior to the Adamic sin, the world was good but not perfect. Perfection is reserved for the new creation. Biological death was already a feature of the pre-Adamic world. But I learned all from old earth creationists like Lee Irons - there’s a lot of excellent OEC material out there on the age of the earth, animal death before human sin, etc.

nedbrek - #60695

May 2nd 2011

Hello Penman,
   I think the problem is not so much headship, or even death before the Fall.

The biggest problem is reconciling God’s creative pleasure (that Creation has turned out exactly as He pleases - which includes “sin analogues” (animals behaving in ways we can trace to sinful desires in humans) to God’s Law (which is classically held to be an expression of God’s character).

Common descent places these two in opposition.  This leads some to deny that the Law is really an expression of God’s character (which is, I believe, Roger Sawtelle’s position, although I have basic communication problems with him - rather, that the Law is an alien imposition.

This makes God to be arbitrary and, actually, rather cruel - to make us with sinful desires (which is pleasing to Him in animals), then to order us to fight them, without providing us the means to do so.

Others deny God’s creative power, or foreknowledge (Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne), but this leads to more and deeper problems.

Cal - #60700

May 2nd 2011

A Question on your opinion of the Law:

Would you consider a shadow of His Face, of His Character, a real expression? I think the law of Moses is an arrow pointing to the coming Messiah, which the true Law of Christ (The Law of Love) is expressed in full and through His life. This is shown in the “You have heard…Now I say to you…” on the real intent of the law of Moses to be an arrow pointing ahead to fulfillment. And in Him we find that expression of the Law of Love through His acting through us.

How do you feel about this?

nedbrek - #60707

May 2nd 2011

I agree that the Law points us to Christ (Gal 3:24).

The question is, “why/how”?  Is it something God made up, or is it because of who God is?

Cal - #60717

May 3rd 2011

I think it’s a little of both. Much of the law of Moses only makes real sense for the situation the Israelites were in (in terms of importance). Not getting “skin carved” (ie Tatooing/“Scartooing”) is no big deal today, but in the time of Israel the only men who carved into their bodies were marked out as idol-pagan priests.

Today, in the eyes of the culture, tatooing is not a ritual binding yourself to an idol, but a form of artwork. Whatever causes one to stumble must be abandoned and this was true for the law of Moses to the Israelites. Fulfilling the Law of Christ was similar to Paul giving up eating meat when he was around his weaker Roman brethren who could not eat meat without feeling tempter of having gave homage to an idol (since most meat was dedicated in part to one of the hundreds of gods throughout Rome).

It was a shadow of His character, but what was shown was made up for the circumstances of Israel. The Scriptures don’t make a distinction for the “10 Commandments”, but much of what was spoken was in some dimension, universal. These were negative object lessons “Dont Lie, Don’t Murder etc.” but it pointed to the higher purpose, Speak the Truth, Protect Life, which is only done through Christ in you, the hope of glory!

nedbrek - #60729

May 3rd 2011

Let me put it in a slightly different light:
Many of the laws given to Moses where for the proclamation of the nation of Israel as “holy” (set apart to God).

That is, “Israel is holy, because God is holy”.  So, all the cultural and ceremonial aspects tell us about God (both in the negative - God does not mix with worldly cultures and religious practices, but also in the positive - God has very specific “right” ways of doing things, including all the ceremonial practices).

That has not changed.  God still has very specific ways of doing things, and does not mix.  We are not Israel, so we do not do as they do - but the principles still apply.

penman - #60721

May 3rd 2011

Nedbrek #60695

I see your point. My view is that “sinful” desires can be ascribed only to moral agents - humans & angels (the only two we know about, at any rate). I can’t see anything in philosophy or scripture that would justify ascribing “sin” to non-human, non-angelic “animal” creations. Or indeed ascribing godliness/holiness/virtue to them.

We’re still left with the issue of where animals got these behavior patterns that you think are sinful. If God didn’t intend it, does that mean the animal creation is now outside His control? Is it now Satanic? Or what? I recollect some lines from Isaac Watts in his hymns for children:

Let dogs delight
To bark and bite;
For God hath made them so.

A 19th century “creationist” (or “scriptural geologist” as they were then called) rebuked Watts for these lines & said that they should have been written:

Let dogs delight
To bark and bite;
Satan hath made them so.

Who was right?

nedbrek - #60728

May 3rd 2011

Satan is currently the lord of the Earth (sometimes also referred to as the “prince of the power of the air” - Eph 2:2).  This includes all unsaved peoples, and is pretty easily applied to animals (who are under the dominion of man).

You are right to focus on how things became this way.  Did God hand things over to Satan before Adam, or because of Adam?  If before Adam, then God’s promise of dominion to Adam was deceptive - Satan was already ruling, and his rule could not be broken.

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